The University of Derby continued to break its own quality assurance rules in the rush to exploit opportunities to provide overseas courses, despite repeated warnings, quality chiefs said this week.
Almost four years after a THES investigation showed that the university had lowered agreed entry standards to admit underqualified students to degree courses in Israel, the Quality Assurance Agency has found that the university failed to heed numerous warnings about quality-control weaknesses. In an audit report, the QAA says it could have only "limited confidence" in the university's capacity to guarantee the quality and academic standards of its overseas partnerships.
The agency says that as a matter of "necessity", the university must "guard against the pressures for development compromising its stated procedures for assuring the quality and standards of its collaborative provision".
The THES first reported in July 1999 that, under financial pressure, Derby had breached its agreed entry requirements to enrol students to a business degree course at Inter College in Israel without the full Israeli matriculation certificate. Documents showed that at least one unqualified student gained a degree in just 12 months and that a cohort of students had been recruited to a BA course before the university had approved it.
A year after the first THES report, a QAA investigation substantially endorsed The THES' s findings and concluded that Derby's partnership with Inter had been formed in 1997 and 1998 "with insufficient care and prudence" and was run in a way that "did not secure the quality and standards of programmes offered". But it said that several concerns raised by lecturers' union Natfhe were "unfounded" and that the partnership was on a "sounder footing".
This week's QAA report, based on a June 2002 review visit, warns that many problems persist with the university's overseas collaborations, including the one with Inter.
The report says that although Derby has strengthened its controls in Israel, proper procedures for approving new courses at Inter were breached.
Although the rules state that no programme can run without the approval of the university's academic quality committee (AQC), the QAA audit team found that in one instance the AQC was requested on February 25 2002 to approve a BSc (hons) computer studies programme for an intake in November 2001 - four months earlier.
In another case, Derby's planning approvals panel "did not properly fulfil its responsibilities" when it met just weeks before a new computing course was due to begin at the end of 2001, and it endorsed the course without seeing that there were sufficient resources to deliver the programme successfully.
The audit team was also concerned that assessment procedures at Derby's partner institutions had been allowed to be "varied". At one collaboration, with Vakalo College in Athens, procedures for assessment were more lenient than for the university's degrees awarded in the UK.
At Vakalo, "students who did not complete assessment at the first attempt were referred for a further attempt with very little penalty", the auditors say.
In conclusion, the QAA says: "In respect of overseas collaborative arrangementsI many of the matters drawn to the university's attention in the report of this audit had been identified by earlier internal and external audits. The findings of the audit therefore suggest that confidence in the university's capacity to assure the quality and standards of its overseas collaborative provision as a matter of routine must be limited."
A spokeswoman for Derby said: "The specific issues that relate to international partnerships, which are used to support the recommendation to guard against development pressures, have been given our full attention.
However, the university does not consider that standards have ever been compromised. Nowhere in the QAA report is there evidence of any problems with the quality of the student experience or the standards of awards conferred.
"The report includes a number of points for commendation alongside the points for further consideration and, where necessary, we have already taken action to address the observations made."